The war chief who became a peace chief
In April, USC honored USC Dornsife alumnus Joseph Medicine Crow (pictured here in 2015) by officially naming a historic campus building after him. (Photo Courtesy of Medicine Crow Art.)

The war chief who became a peace chief

Joseph Medicine Crow, the last war chief of the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation, World War II hero, recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom, renowned Native American historian and USC Dornsife alumnus devoted his life to overcoming intolerance.
BySusan Bell

Serving as a U.S. Army scout during World War II, Joseph Medicine Crow was rounding a corner in a small French town when he collided with a strapping, young German soldier. Medicine Crow, who was wearing war paint beneath his uniform and had a yellow eagle feather concealed inside his helmet, was not a big man, but he didn’t shoot the enemy. Instead, he disarmed the German with a boot thrust. Throwing his own rifle aside, he overpowered the larger man in hand-to-hand combat. While Medicine Crow was choking him, the German’s eyes rolled back in his head and he gasped “Mama, Mama.” Recounting the tale many years later, Medicine Crow said the soldier’s plea brought him to his senses.

“I let go of him and got my rifle back and he became my prisoner,” he told his son, Ronald Medicine Crow. “We sat down, away from all the shouting and fighting, and I shared a cigarette with him.”

This exploit is a perfect illustration of not only Medicine Crow’s bravery, but also his profound humanity — a quality that brought him some of the world’s highest honors, as well as the respect of all who met him.

A Lifetime of Honors

One of USC Dornsife’s most distinguished alumni, Joseph Medicine Crow was a renowned Native American historian and writer, the last war chief of the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation and its first member to earn a master’s degree. In 2009, President Barack Obama honored him with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in recognition of his military service and contributions to Native American history. The previous year, he was awarded a Bronze Star and the Légion d’Honneur — France’s highest order of merit — for his service in World War II.

According to Crow tradition, a warrior must fulfill four requirements to be named a war chief. Medicine Crow accomplished all four during WWII: leading a successful war party, touching an enemy soldier without killing him, disarming an enemy soldier, and capturing an enemy’s horse. Indeed, among his war exploits, Medicine Crow is credited with capturing 50 horses from a Nazi SS camp and successfully leading a team of soldiers to dynamite German artillery.

He also claimed to be the first Allied soldier to land in Nazi Germany after his captain ordered him to leap over the narrow stream that marked the Siegfried Line separating the country from France — a feat for which he was later congratulated by General Omar Bradley, one of General Dwight Eisenhower’s right-hand men.

“An All-Round Man”

Born into the Whistling Waters clan on the Crow Reservation in Lodge Grass, Montana, in 1913, Medicine Crow came from a distinguished lineage: His paternal grandfather was the eminent Chief Medicine Crow and his step-father was the son of White Man Runs Him — one of George Armstrong Custer’s four personal scouts at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Medicine Crow was raised by his grandparents, who immersed him in Crow traditions, inculcating stamina and tribal skills.

“His Grandfather Yellowtail trained him in the old warrior ways,” Ronald Medicine Crow says. “In wintertime, they chopped a hole in the ice and took a refreshing morning plunge. Then Yellowtail told him to run a hundred yards in the snow barefoot. In summer and fall, Dad learned hunting and tracking skills.

“My father was raised as a farm boy, rancher, outdoorsman, hunter, cowboy, jockey and exercise boy — he was an all-round man.”

During his formative years, Joseph Medicine Crow was also absorbing the history of his tribe. When elders gathered at the sweat lodge, telling stories of intertribal warfare and mythological heroes, Medicine Crow, who served as their water boy, was listening and taking mental note.

This early knowledge forged a lifelong love of Native American history. Widely recognized as the last person to have heard accounts of the Battle of Little Bighorn directly from participants in the 1876 conflict and a naturally gifted storyteller in his own right, Medicine Crow grew up to be revered as one of the most influential and knowledgeable carriers of his people’s oral history.

After WWII, he became tribal historian for the Apsáalooke (Crow) Tribal Council, documenting his people’s traditions and daily life in several books, including From the Heart of the Crow Country: The Crow Indian’s Own Stories (Crown, 1992).

Perseverance Pays Off

Unable to speak English as a young child, Medicine Crow’s formal education got off to a rough start when he struggled to pronounce “excuse me” to his teacher’s satisfaction after suffering a bout of hiccups on his first day. She made him don a dunce’s cap and sent him to the sand box to play with wooden blocks. This treatment continued for his first two years of school.

From eighth grade through his first two years of college, Medicine Crow attended Bacone College in Oklahoma, becoming a star pitcher for the baseball team and excelling at javelin. He became an accomplished musician, learning to play six instruments — saxophone, clarinet, flute, piano, accordion and the Indian hand drum.

In high school, he also began to study seriously, competing with a friend to get top grades.

“That’s how he came from being in the sandbox with a dunce’s cap to being an A student and making the honor roll,” Ronald Medicine Crow says.

Joseph Medicine Crow pursued his studies at Linfield College in Oregon before arriving at USC Dornsife in 1938 on a scholarship. He earned his master’s in anthropology with an archaeology minor in 1939. His thesis, “The Effects of European Culture Contacts Upon the Economic, Social and Religious Life of the Crow Indians,” is regarded as the seminal scholarly work on the topic.

By the early 1940s, Medicine Crow had completed the coursework to earn a PhD at USC Dornsife, but determined to serve his country, he joined the U.S. Army in 1942. USC awarded him an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 2003 — one of four honorary doctorates he received during his lifetime.

Upon returning home from WWII, Medicine Crow started a successful career as a land appraiser for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There he put his archaeology training at USC to good use, surveying land to ensure no sacred burial sites or artifacts were disturbed by development.

Peace Chief

Saddened by the anti-Native American discrimination he witnessed, he hit upon the idea of creating a Miss Indian America pageant to help promote unity between the white and Indian people. Held during the All-American Indian Days — an annual celebration of Native American culture and another initiative of Medicine Crow to foster positive relations — the pageant was a success. “It changed the climate, and pretty soon we were more than welcome to come into town and do business,” says Ronald Medicine Crow.

Joseph Medicine Crow showed a lifelong commitment to education, teaching in the Department of Crow Studies at Montana’s Little Big Horn College. A middle school in Billings, Montana, was named after him.

And in 2000, the war chief — who was also a devout Baptist who taught a men’s Sunday school class — performed the opening song for the United Nations summit conference for spiritual and religious leaders.

Ronald Medicine Crow says his father was profoundly influenced by Christianity and did his best to live a good life and be a role model for young and old alike.

“My father said, ‘I live in two worlds: the Indian world and the white world. There is a middle line that joins those two worlds together. … I walk that line and take what’s good from both.’

“Dad was a humanist who loved all people, even his enemies, He was a man of dignity, but a humble man. He didn’t hold grudges. He was forgiving and positive. And people loved him for that.”

A Trailblazer and A Role Model

Medicine Crow died on April 2, 2016, at age 102. State officials attended his funeral, and tributes poured in from all over the world, including from Obama.

The tributes continued even after Medicine Crow’s death.

This year, on April 16, USC honored the USC Dornsife alumnus by officially naming a historic campus building after him. The Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow Center for International and Public Affairs is located at the heart of USC’s University Park campus, its tower topped by one of the university’s most visible and recognizable landmarks — the stylized globe. The center is home to many USC Dornsife departments, including anthropology, art history, political science and international relations. A scholarship program for Native Americans will also be established in his name.

In her speech at the naming ceremony, USC Dornsife Dean Amber D. Miller paid tribute to Medicine Crow, describing him as “a bridgebuilder.”

“He connected new generations with stories of their past, helped communities overcome intolerance toward indigenous peoples, and found ways to link the Crow people’s cultural traditions with the opportunities of modern society,” she said.

“Joe Medicine Crow was also known for being a generous mentor — he was patient and encouraging and eager to invest in others. Most importantly, he showed how to live through his actions.” —S.B.